Why I decided to finally visit the Karen Hill Tribe village and what I learned
I have been visiting Thailand with clients, specifically Chiang Mai, for more than two years now, and this year was the first time I decided to visit their villages. Like many other tourists, I too had reservations. I too wrestled with moral and ethical issues because I was told that they were being used by the Thai government as part of the tourist attraction and like so many others, I wanted no parts of that! So what changed? Well, mainly, me! After having traveled to more than 20 countries in the past 2.5 years, I have learned that I was wrong about every country that I have visited for the first time and that I needed to stop being lazy and go see and learn for myself and not just accept what I see and read on social media or any media for that matter. So here is what I learned after visiting two different villages this summer.
Who Are They?
The Karen people are a tribal group who lived in the hills of their native Myanmar (formerly Burma). They have been crossing over to Thailand to escape persecution since the 18th century. The women in the group are easily identified by the brass rings they wear around their necks. You can find most of them along the Thailand and Myanmar border, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai’s northern region of Thailand. The Karen people are divided into four major subgroups: Sgaw or Pga-gan Yaw, the Pwo or Plong, the Pa-O or Taungthu are also known as Black Karen and Bwe or Kayah also known as Red Karen. There are two sub-categories of Pwo Karen, Pwo Kanchanaburi in the east and Pwo Rachaburi in the north.
Some believe that the Karen people are originally from Tibet. The groups I have been visiting reside in Chiang Mai but the fact that they have been in Thailand for a long time has not changed their immigration status and that is where the controversy comes in.
Immigrants in Thailand
Like any other refugees, you are not afforded the same benefits as the citizens such as education and healthcare, for example. For those of you who do not know, I am half Thai and half Lao. My father is a Thai who married my Lao mother and moved there in the 60’s to build a life with her. As a result of the Vietnam War, we defected to Thailand in the late 1970’s to seek asylum but because we were Lao citizens, we were made to go live in the refugee camp. Being half-Thai afforded us nothing special and just like other immigrants, we did not have the same benefits as my Thai family. I also have Lao cousins that cross over the border from Laos in the present day to find jobs (migrant workers). They are allowed be there with a work visa but do not have citizen benefits. Laotian, Burmese and Cambodian migrant workers are the backbones of the Thai economy. They fill missing job labor gaps. I only mention this because I want to share that this issue is not just a Karen Tribe issue, it’s an immigration issue, much bigger than the Hill Tribe problem and needs a big broom to clean up.
Additionally, if you decide to visit, you will notice that there are other tribes present at these villages that are not Long Neck Karen people. I met Hmongs from Laos, Akhas from Burma, and Miao-Yaos from China. They all speak a different language and wear different tribal costumes.
Why Do the Women Wear Those Rings Around Their Neck?
The quick and easy answer is, they wear the brass rings because it’s a sign of beauty and a part of their heritage, culture, and identity. There are other answers that involve myths and you are welcome to google for more information on those.
At What Age do the Girls Start Wearing the Rings?
Girls as young as around 5 years old can start wearing them and they add the rings as they get older but this practice may be a dying tradition as more and more girls today are abandoning it.
Does Adding the Rings Really Make Their Neck Longer?
Adding the rings does not make their neck longer. What it does is it presses down on the shoulders, so it creates an illusion of a longer neck.
Will their Neck Break if They Remove the Rings?
No, some women have removed the rings. They will just need to adjust to not having them on and some have shared experiencing some discomfort during this adjustment period.
Are the Villages Fake?
Yes, the villages are make shift; created or staged for tourists. They do live there but only temporarily and go to their real homes/refugee camps when they are not “working.”
Do the Karen People Want Tourists to Visit?
Yes! After speaking with some of the ladies and the guides, they are happy to receive tourists as what they sell provides a significant source of income. Some, more than what their husbands make.
Should You Visit the Karen Hill Tribe?
Yes! They want us there but don’t just go and take pictures and leave. Buy the scarves, the bracelets, the handmade bags and other souvenirs. Most of the items are between $1 to $5 a piece so go easy on the haggling and pay fair price. They depend on it for income. Some of the items I love from the Karen Tribe Villages are the beautiful scarves and brass bracelets and rings. I especially love the bracelets. They are super cute when paired with modern and trendy accessories such as watches. And by the way, they are ideal gifts as they are very easy and light to pack, so they do not take up much space in your luggage.
Travel To Chiang Mai, Thailand with Passion Travel Services
Passion Travel Services organizes one group tour per year to Thailand. Chiang Mai and a visit to the Karen village is included in the tour. If you’d like to visit Thailand and the Karen Hill Tribe people, please contact us for more information. Our tour date for 2020 is November 4-16 which will also put us in Chiang Mai during the annual Lantern Festival. We are also happy to organize and customize a private tour for your group at a date that is convenient for you.
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